By Deborah Hilcove
Once upon a time, a young man planned his future. It was summertime and he anticipated his senior year of high school, filled with football, prom, volleyball, classwork and graduation. In May, he’d wear the orange gown of a Tempe Corona del Sol graduate, then enter Arizona State University, studying Fire Science, working toward becoming a firefighter and—with his characteristic hard work and determination— advancing to the rank of captain. He already played football and varsity volleyball. But he wanted to take up archery, and as often happens to a novice, bruised his forearm. The bruise faded, but Ridge Vanderbur could not straighten his arm and the pain would not go away. A doctor’s visit showed two blood clots. Laboratory tests confirmed acute myeloid leukemia, a highly aggressive cancer of the bloodstream. Suddenly Ridge and his family entered the world of catheters and thermometers, of doctors and nurses, of chemotherapy and laboratory tests. He spent the next seven months at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, battling the cancer that had no invaded his body and as the weeks wore on, spending his 18th birthday in the hospital. Like a battle, there were good days and not so good days. Ridge and his family found themselves on a roller coaster of improvement, then setbacks, followed by more improvement. They kept fighting. Just recently, Ridge hoped to go home. However, strokes and heart damage intervened, requiring his transfer to Mayo Clinic where he could receive advanced cardiology care.
Ridge and his family are fighting, determined he will return home soon and resume his dreams. For now, though, his mother, Brenda, spends 16 to 18 hours every day with him. She keeps a Facebook page, “Ridge’s Rocky Road.” When his dad, Vince, finishes work, he is at the hospital, spending six to eight hours with Ridge, so their son is never alone. Whenever possible, his older sister visits from college and his younger sister brings messages and shares photos from their high school friends. Neighbors, family and friends have rallied, forming “Team Ridge,” to support Ridge and encourage his recovery. They have shouldered task— the housecleaning, dog care, laundry, yard work, grocery shopping, dinner preparations—so his family can be at the hospital. One of the moms, Kathy Williams, says lots of folks have come forward since the family began its vigil. “People everywhere have wanted to help. People may not know Ridge or his family, but they want to help. They’ve given grocery cards and gas cards to help with the endless driving to the hospital. “There have been airline gift cards for an aunt who lives out of state and tries to come every weekend to help.” After a pause, Williams adds: “And there have been prayer vigils. That’s important.” Robin Deschapelles, Team Ridge captain for a five-mile hike at South Mountain on Feb. 28, says: “Our kids have known each other since play groups, elementary school and now high school.
The community and the high school—the students and faculty—they’ve all come together, done so much. It’s a difficult situation, but you see so much good.” She continues, “The family is dealing with a sensitive issue. They’re overwhelmed by the support. They’re asking help now in raising money for organizations that benefit children with cancer.” Firefighters at Station Five, near Phoenix Children’s Hospital, visited Ridge whenever possible. A friend gave him a fireman’s helmet, a reminder of his dream, and firefighters from around the state have donated t-shirts bearing their station numbers that now have been fashioned into a quilt. Corona students have rallied around their friend, posting encouragement on Facebook, Instagram and Flipboard, using Twitter to share Ridge’s progress. They wore “Ridge” t-shirts for football games and staged a “White-Out.” Trying to ease his seven-month ordeal, they decorated his hospital room with posters, cards and photos. Together with faculty and parents, they have held fundraises—car washes, a dunking booth at the carnival, a golf tournament. Katelyn Stys, a neighbor and CdS student, helped organize t-shirt sales. The boys volleyball team sold wristbands. Sports teams have designed t-shirts with a “Ridge” logo.
The baseball team and coaches shaved their heads, honoring their friend while supporting the Children’s Cancer Network. “It’s been difficult for them [the Vanderburs] to accept all this,” Deanna Carrera says. “They’re very humbled by the outpouring. They’re used to giving, being the first to offer help. But sometimes life takes us down a different path. They’d like people to know that anyone with cancer needs your support. Do what you can to help. You can’t get through this alone.” Ridge’s new room at the Mayo Clinic is different from the brightly decorated one at PCH. This is meant to be only a stopover. His big, black Newfoundland, Zeus, joined the family recently to visit. Ridge sat outside with his dog, enjoying the fresh air and sunshine, looking forward to recovering soon at home. With the help of the Tempe Union High School District and Corona del Sol principal Brent Brown, Ridge has been taking online courses, keeping himself on track to graduate with his class in May. When that day arrives and he dons an orange robe and crosses the graduation platform to receive his diploma, Ridge Vanderbur can stand tall, knowing he has been honored and embraced by a caring community of family, friends and strangers.